Review: Fond Restaurant in Edwardsville

Opening a restaurant just before winter is a dangerous proposition, especially if the restaurant promises seasonal foods comprising locally procured fruits, vegetables, meats and herbs; this isn’t exactly the right time for just-picked tomatoes or fresh-from-the-garden greens. Even riskier is opening a high-end, very expensive restaurant in a college town of maybe 25,000 residents situated nearly 25 miles from many of St. Louis’ finest eateries. But Amy Zupanci – the Edwardsville native who studied at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and toiled in five New York restaurants before returning to the Midwest – did precisely that when she opened Fond in downtown Edwardsville in late October.

The restaurant takes its name from the French word for “base,” referring to those caramelized browned bits of cooked meat stuck to the bottom of a pan and used as the base of sauces and stocks. At Fond, Zupanci’s cooking whispers rather than shouts her classical French culinary training. Fans of the cooking at Niche, her former employer, will appreciate the similar restrained style. But given Fond’s prices, what goes for Niche and other upper-priced restaurants may be a harder sell in Edwardsville, especially as a fine-dining destination. More on that later.

Fond’s menu changes daily; frustrating for reviewers – what we review one night may be moot by the time you visit – but good for adventuresome diners up for a bit of serendipity (and not prone to take reviews too seriously). The blue snapper looked good one night but was gone a week later. Ditto for the Parmesan ravioli appetizer, forcing me to sample the carbonara instead. Not that I complained, especially once my companion and I tucked into the delicious pasta made with a light sauce of egg yolk, pancetta and scallions that the kitchen thoughtfully split when the server heard we wanted to share the appetizer.

Little details, like replacing flatware after each course, are welcome service gestures. So is greeting diners with amuse bouches like a bit of grilled squid in black olive oil or bite-sized bacon-onion tarts with chive oil. And treating diners to after-dinner sweets of Irish cream truffles and quarter-sized cookies. Zupanci and her small kitchen staff also attend to butchering their own meat and pickling homegrown cucumbers and heirloom peppers. More attention to the wine list, however, is in order. By the glass, the Glen Carlou Cabernet is from Napa Valley; by the bottle, it’s from South Africa. Which is it? (It’s from a South African winery owned by the Hess winery of Napa Valley.) And where are the Pinot Noirs or Rhônes by the glass?

Fond does manage to strike a balance between nuance and innovation while extolling the virtues of the seasons. A lightly seasoned, inch-and-half-thick meaty Tasmanian salmon – the breed said to have the best texture for cooking – was roasted medium-rare, as it should be, and served atop a bed of arugula spiked with a tapenade. A nonroutine pork belly, thick and interlaced with crackling, was bolstered by braised red cabbage, mustard spaetzle and cider-pork jus. Duck breast, roasted a bit too rare, cut on the bias and spread out on a cassoulet of duck confit, sausage and white beans shows Zupanci’s fondness for French cooking, making for a rich, satisfying winter meal. A free-form lasagna consisted of three sheets of stacked, square noodles, each ladled with a wild mushroom ragu and smoked celery root purée. Rather than the typical layers of mozzarella, I poured a silky Gruyère fondue from the accompanying espresso cup for added richness. Desserts are sturdy enough but need tweaking: a pistachio-orange cake was bursting with nutty-citrus flavor but came off dry; a tasty apple tart was more apple crisp than tart.

Entrée prices are in the mid to upper 20s, triggering the niggling price-to-value voice in the back of the mind, questioning how these dishes transcend similar satisfying meals I’ve had recently for $20 and less. That voice chimed in again at the $10 salads and soups (superb split pea and also butternut squash) and, most surprising, that delicious $14 carbonara appetizer. Certainly, emphasizing seasonal, local ingredients costs extra, but even compared with Erato on Main – another excellent and expensive locavore-type restaurant down the street – some items are steeply priced. I also found it odd that there was no locally raised chicken on the menu during my visits, and beef was available only once.

With Zupanci’s dedication and vision, Fond is a welcome addition to the Metro East dining milieu. Given similar dining options closer to home, St. Louisans’ fondness for short treks across the river remains to be seen.